Outline: A Novel

  • By Rachel Cusk
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 256 pp.

A series of conversations reveal uncomfortable truths about the myriad reasons why relationships fail.

Outline: A Novel

Toward the end of Rachel Cusk's latest novel, Outline, a playwright named Anne describes a conversation she had with a stranger sitting next to her on an airplane. The more he talked about his life, the more he defined hers. "In everything he said about himself, she found in her own nature a corresponding negative...she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. Yet this shape, even while its content remained unknown, gave her...a sense of who she now was."

Anne's description of herself could just as easily be the reader's characterization of the novel's first-person narrator, a British writer whose name is only mentioned once; blink and you miss it. Through the course of the narrator's conversations with various people, most of them writers or students of writing, we come to know her innermost thoughts and preoccupations, though we have no idea what she looks like, nor do we glean other minutiae authors usually employ to define their protagonists.

What we do learn over the course of these conversations is that she has come to Athens to teach a weeklong course called "How to Write," she has two children, and her marriage has recently broken up, for reasons as unfathomable as those why people come together in the first place. As she says, a "marriage is a system of belief, a story, and though it manifests itself in things that are real enough, the impulse that drives it is mostly mysterious." Most of the people with whom she converses are profoundly affected by their own unsuccessful relationships, and there is much discussion about the myriad reasons a relationship fails.

For many of her conversation partners, and for the narrator herself, the craft of writing and the art of living are deeply intertwined. Life is art, art is life. Life is also fiction, as we spin our own histories for public consumption, withholding some details, embellishing others; we are authors of our own life narratives.

And much like life, Outline does not have a discernible plot. The closest it comes to a narrative arc is the friendship the narrator strikes up with a man she encounters on the flight from London to Athens. They meet twice more in Athens, and as he tells her the story of his life and his three failed marriages, perhaps a parable for the sad downfall of the nation of Greece; it becomes clear  he is interested in more than just conversation with her.

Early in the book, the narrator declares, "I did not, any longer, want to persuade anyone of anything." Sensing a sympathetic and nonjudgmental ear, people confide in her their crises of identity: failed relationships, stalled writing careers, disillusionment, their most profound disappointments of life.

We hear from Ryan, who has not produced anything since his first modestly successful book written when he was a creative writing graduate student 20 years ago: "It's as if he can't quite remember what drove him into words in the first place, all those years before, yet words are what he still deals in. I suppose it's a bit like marriage, he said. You build a whole structure on a period of intensity that's never repeated. It's the basis of your faith and sometimes you doubt it, but you never renounce it because too much of your life stands on that ground." Perhaps not so coincidentally, he is the one of the few characters who is still in his first marriage, despite his wandering eye.

Her friend Paniotis talks about the spectacular failure of his small literary publishing house. "At the age of fifty-one I was still capable of producing, in all innocence, a completely unrealisable hope. The human capacity for self-delusion is apparently infinite."

He gives the narrator a photo taken the last time they had met, of her with her husband and family, and tells her not to be afraid to look at it. Whether she looks at it or not, the reader never does: another blank surrounded by Paniotis' insightful commentary.

Paniotis' friend Angeliki, also a writer, regards her role as wife and mother as being in direct conflict with her career as a writer, and has made her career writing about that conflict. (Contradictions like this abound in the book.) As Angeliki leaves, she tells the narrator how wonderful it was to meet her. The narrator later tells Paniotis that they had already met. "'That was another Angeliki,' he said, 'an Angeliki who no longer exists and has been written out of the history books. Angeliki the famous writer, the feminist of international renown, has never met you before in her life.'"

While Paniotis and the narrator wait for Angeliki to meet them, he notes, "the interesting ones are like islands…you don't bump into them on a street or at a party, you have to know where they are and go to them by arrangement." Though he is talking about people, the same can be said of authors. One rarely just happens upon a writer who captivates and enthralls. Rachel Cusk's elegant prose, sharp eye for detail, and insightful observations on human relationships make her work an island whose shores I will want to land on again and again.

Alice Stephens writes a regular column for the Independent, Alice in Wordland.

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